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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Show Biz Pizzazz Makes For a Very Special
A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Guy Adkins
What We’ve Been Waiting to Know: Director Tina Landau has delivered a terrifically entertaining, musicalized A Midsummer Night's Dream which audiences will be talking about for years to come. Smoothly combining fidelity to Shakespeare’s text (and excellent traditional and non-traditional performance elements) with a modern eclectic score (largely theatre rock and jazz stylings), it emerges as an over the top, riotous entertainment. It variously feels like a play with musical fragments, a play with music, and a rollicking musical comedy. Although it is more faithful to Shakespeare, it might help to think of it as something of a cross between the Guare-McDermott-Shapiro Two Gentlemen of Verona and Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company’s homoerotic romps. It is certainly an antidote to the merely competent, stodgy ordinariness of much of the Shakespeare which is too often fed to us. Not every idea works, and even those that do are sometimes overextended, and it is not necessarily for all audiences. However, it is Shakespeare for the young and the young at heart, and a must-see for all who appreciate invigorating, innovative theatre.

GrooveLily: It is Landau’s concept to build the entire production around her performing songwriters, Valerie Vigoda (electric violin), Brendan Milburn (keyboards), and Gene Lewin (drums). The opening finds them in a black box in the middle of the entirely black proscenium stage. Their hands are nodding about and onto their instruments and a couple of their chairs are levitating. As they launch into a musical prelude, it is clear that they are off in dreamland. At the end of the proceedings, we will again see them similarly nodding their heads about as their common dream concludes. They also play three of the worker-players who rehearse and then enact the story of Pyramus and Thisbe for the wedding of the Duke of Athens. We are assured in a program note that the lyrics for all but two of their songs are taken directly from Shakespeare. It may help some get a handle on their style to note that they describe themselves as “Steely Dan meets Barenaked Ladies meets Sarah McLaughlin and Meatloaf.” I thought that I heard elements ranging from baroque to pop rock to cabaret style jazz. Mood setting underscoring, a number of song fragments, and full scale songs and musical production numbers are present. Some of the fragments seem to slow down the proceedings, there are large sections of text without songs, and, near the end, the play seems forgotten as the players' presentation to the court turns into a series of musical numbers. However, on the basis of a first hearing, I would say that the music is largely melodious, artful and pleasing, and it underscores the words comfortably, so that once our ears adjust to the audio ambiance, we are able to hear them as well as fully comprehend their meaning.

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Ellen McLaughlin and Lea DeLaria
Guess Who Plays It Straight and Who Doesn’t?: After all, enquiring minds want to know. Well, the superlative Lea DeLaria plays the weaver Nick Bottom in a comedic and musical performance of the highest order. Bottom is the lowly player, who while bedecked by the fairy Puck with an ass’ head, becomes the object of the magic potion induced passion of Titania, Queen of the Fairies. Although we may infer some notion of camp in her very casting, DeLaria plays Bottom without resorting to any. An all out physical comedian with a bright comedic personality, DeLaria is an ideal Nick Bottom regardless of her plumbing. Musical high points are her jazz singing when Titania discovers her, and her comedic singing when her Bottom is playing Pyramus for the Duke’s wedding. On the other hand, Guy Adkins’ Puck is outrageously and campishly homoerotic to the max. This Puck has the androgynous look of some rock stars with his long blonde hair, and he applies Hermia’s lipstick to his lips while she sleeps. In posture, gesture and speech, his most often scantily clad Puck is provocative and insinuating, both to his King Oberon and the patrons out front. Adkins does it very well, and many will, no doubt, enjoy being teased by him. However, conceptually, aside from conflating woodland sprites and gay men with the appellation fairy, there seems to be no particular basis for this interpretation.

How Are The Young Lovers: Lovers Lysander and Hermia flee to the forest outside Athens. Demetrius loves Hermia, too, and follows them into the forest. Helena loves Demetrius, so she follows him. The clumsy application of potions by the fairies will yield new permutations. Landau’s lovers have a contemporary, modern feel about them. The young men are especially randy, and quickly remove clothes in their pursuit of gratification. As a result, Lysander cavorts for much of the time in his shorts. Some good music here, but no stinting on the Shakespeare either. James Martinez gives an exceptionally fine reading as Lysander. Stacey Sargeant as his Hermia and Will Fowler as Demetrius are natural and charming. One of the real jewels of this Midsummer Night's Dream is Brenda Withers’ Helena. Her witty and naturalistic line readings make Shakespeare’s words sound as if they were newly minted. Withers is so totally at home playing the role that she brings Helena smack dab into the 21st century.

The Other Actors: Demond Green (in drag) as the player Flute hilariously partners DeLaria in a major musical selection late in the proceedings. Stephen Payne draws laughs here in the role of the lead player, Peter Quince. He also plays Egeus. Jay Goede doubles nicely as The Duke of Athens and Oberon. Ditto for Ellen McLaughlin as Hippolyta and Titiana.

The Physical Production: The physical production matches the inventiveness of the other elements. At the start, as the black box housing GrooveLily slides to the rear of the stage, the court at Athens appears in the form of a brightly lit stage filling, free standing wall, made up mostly of large white tiles. It is covered at various heights across its width by 24 double candle holders. When the play moves into the forest, the white tiled wall is removed, revealing an open black stage whose dominant design feature is a large number of tall, stage high steel poles with foot rests for climbing. For the concluding scenes back at court, set designer Louisa Thompson just adds several dozen strings of lights in front of the poles, allowing the play to continue in the dream space which she has designed for director Landau. The design allows some of the fairies to bungee jump as well as to string up hammocks and lay in them. Michael Krass’ costumes, white at court, clownishly comic for the players, and quite scant for Puck and the fairies, are fanciful, humorous and vaguely modern.

In Conclusion: This Tina Landau foray into the world of Shakespeare is likely to be much talked about and quite controversial. McCarter subscribers will likely find themselves intrigued as they fall out over the entire spectrum of opinion. However, many of the more conservative subscribers at co-producer Paper Mill are likely to take some offense. With this A Midsummer Night's Dream, there is something special in the air in New Jersey these days and you’ll likely want to breathe it in.

A Midsummer Night's Dream continues performances (Eves.: Tues – Thurs 7:30 p.m./ Fri & Sat 8 p.m.; Mats: Sat 3 p.m./ Sun 2 p.m.) through April 9 at the McCarter Theatre Center (Matthews Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540; Box office: 609-258-ARTS (2787); online www.mccarter.org

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare; directed by Tina Landau

Cast: Theseus/ Oberon ……………………Jay Goede
Hippolyta/Titania………………Ellen Mclaughlin
Egeus/Peter Quince…………………Stephen Payne
Lysander…………………………………………James Martinez
Demetrius………………………………Will Fowler
Hermia…………………………..Stacey Sargeant
Helena…………………………….Brenda Withers
Philostrate/Puck………………………….Guy Adkins
Peaseblossom………………………Karl Christian
Cobweb………………………………….Jesse Nager
Moth……………………………….Ryan Overberg
Mustardseed……..Reginald Holden Overberg
Fairies……...Adam Lobato, Christopher Mai
Nick Bottom……………………………Lea Delaria
Francis Flute……………………….Demond Green
Tom Snout…………………….Brendan Milburn
Robin Starveling…………………Valerie Vigoda
Snug……………………………………Gene Lewin


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


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- Bob Rendell



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